My husband, Nathan, and I purposefully try to choose and give experiences over “stuff” as gifts. But as the kids get older, the experiences over gifts becomes a greater challenge. We are running out of ideas and always looking for a new experience that we haven’t already done to share with our kids.

This year, we found Trowbridge Creek Zoo to try in celebration of our animal-loving daughter’s 10th birthday. Nathan and I both took a day off of work to celebrate with our birthday girl, our other daughter, my sister, her three kids and my brother’s young boys, who were all visiting. Five of the seven kids in tow were ages 5 months to 5 years old and we hoped a rural zoo experience could entertain the kids while creating a memorable 10th birthday for our youngest daughter.

I packed a picnic lunch in a cooler and we ventured to Trowbridge Creek Zoo, near Vergas, Minn. I had driven by it a few times and my expectation was more of a petting zoo than an exotic zoo. As we drove toward our destination, my niece asked, “Will there be alligators at this zoo?” I said, “No alligators at a rural zoo in Minnesota.”

We learned Trowbridge Creek Zoo is far more than a petting zoo. It’s a rural destination with exotic animals in well-built, large, clean pens and clear signs to learn about each animal. My niece reminded me I was wrong about alligators when we saw two American alligators during our visit.

The employee who took our admission said the owner wasn’t available the day we visited so there wouldn’t be camel rides. We will return in the near future for $7 camel rides when they are offered. We bought a $5 feed bucket and the kids had a little shovel they could drop feed down a pipe to a variety of animals.

Through past travels, we have visited a few major city zoos and aquariums. My sister and her kids have frequently visited the Denver Zoo, near where they live. What stood out to us at the Trowbridge Creek Zoo compared to large city zoos is the lack of noise, no concrete, no elaborate displays of animals, just a simple way to experience different animals, in a peaceful park-like setting. I think city zoos have a commercialized feeling compared to the open space and family setting of Trowbridge Creek Zoo. I also loved seeing Holstein dairy cows grazing in a pasture on the land next to the zoo.

According to the Trowbridge website, the owners are Dustin and Rachel Ebersviller, and their six children all help at the zoo. As we walked down past the tundra wolves and Rocky Mountain elk, we met one of the children, Tel, who wore a “Zoo Crew” shirt and was holding a baby porcupine, named Roger. The kids loved seeing the African Crested porcupines in a pen but petting Roger was a hands-on experience they won’t soon forget.

A parrot said “Hello” as we ate our picnic at several tables in a shelter with a nearby playground for the kids. My husband, sister and I agreed this is an annual event we will do when the cousins visit. When friends with kids venture to our lake place later this summer, we’ll take them to visit Trowbridge Creek Zoo. Any ages would connect with the openness, laid back atmosphere and selection of animals to view. We recommend adding in your own personal picnic to take extra time and enjoy the setting. Learn more on their Facebook page or website:

We followed the zoo visit with a stop for ice cream at Ducharme’s Corner Store near Dent, Minn. As our birthday daughter ate her mint chocolate chip soft serve, she declared it her “best birthday ever.” She may say that every year, but as parents, we’ll take it.